It’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous before a test. Actually, a small amount of stress can be beneficial to you, as it drives you to prepare well and can help you maintain your focus. But for some students, the stress associated with testing becomes overwhelming and hinders their ability to concentrate and perform well on an exam. These students often blank out on all of the answers they had committed to memory before the exam began or feel so nervous about completing the exam that they waste time and energy anxiously checking the clock every few seconds. The latter is especially a problem for students dealing with timed tests (like the ACT!), but it can affect students in environments without strict time limits as well, particularly if a student feels they are a slow reader or slow test taker.
So if testing anxiety is so debilitating, how can you overcome it? If you’re bogged down by an inordinate amount of worry and self-doubt with regard to your testing ability, you have to take steps to replace your doubt with confidence. If stress and uncertainty are the root of testing anxiety, then surely confidence is the solution!
Developing good study skills and preparing adequately for a test are essential for building confidence. If you systematically study and practice the material, then you will feel considerably more comfortable taking the exam. Your preparation shouldn’t start the night before the test, because this will only lead to more stress! If you try to cram in too much information at once, you’re liable to feel extremely overwhelmed and underprepared. Instead, start preparing weeks in advance and examine the material slowly and thoroughly. This also gives you the opportunity to ask your teachers and peers for clarification on concepts you don’t understand along the way. If you wait to look at the material the night before only to find that you don’t understand it, it’s too late!
Studying should also involve ensuring that you know as much about the test as possible. You need to explore questions about the exam’s makeup. Will there be multiple choice questions? What about essays? How many questions total will you need to complete? Is there a time limit to the test? If so, about how much time will you have for each question? If there is a time limit and that stresses you out, begin working with practice problems under timed environments so that you become used it.
You also need to prepare yourself mentally. If you find yourself stuck in a negative thought pattern, work on developing a positive one instead. When you find yourself thinking about how you can’t succeed, combat this negativity with a new thought: I will succeed. I will ace that test. I’ve been studying for weeks and I know the material. Once you get in the habit of thinking this way, it will become your default.
Additionally, develop relaxation techniques. Different things work for different people, but some examples include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and visualization. Explore different options and find one that works for you, and then use it to help you cope when you start to feel anxious.
Finally, if you take all of these steps and still feel that anxiety is impeding your performance on exams, don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help! Sometimes, in addition to stress about exams, students feel ashamed of their anxiety, which only leads to even lower self-confidence, which leads to worse performance, becoming a self-feeding cycle. Testing anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of! If you need help, talk to your parents, teachers, and friends, and don’t be afraid to see a counselor.
Claire Engel is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.